Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cherry Picking

I had an interesting thing happen at church on Sunday. Before I get into specifics I wanted to talk about the rhetorical tool of cherry-picking. Cherry-picking is the process of picking only the data the supports your position while ignoring or under emphasizing the data that goes contrary to your point.
To illustrate my point today I took a Wikipedia article about an individual and picked only the positive and neutral points. From the information below see if you can identify the subject of the article.

An avid downhill skier while in high school.
He studied law at Utah State University.
In college he was baptized a member of the LDS church.
He worked on Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.
He liked Volkswagens.
He enjoyed spending time outdoors.
He died at age 43.

Okay. He sounds like a pretty good guy, doesn’t he? Well yeah. Anybody would if you only use the details that make him seem like a nice guy. Now take a look at the rest of his profile and see if I left out anything important.

Big difference isn’t it? Even though everything above was technically true by cherry-picking the data, only picking the positive, I was able to create a false picture of who this man really was.

Now back to my experience Sunday. July 24th is Pioneer Day. It’s a Mormon holiday to celebrate those who made the trek west to help settle the Salt Lake valley. It’s typical for the Sunday talks to tell personal anecdotes about ancestors who made the trek and have them make comparisons to their own lives. This Sunday it became a textbook example of cherry-picking. The closing speaker did indeed have an ancestor who crossed the plains and helped settle the west. As he began to list the positive attributes of his great-great-great-great grandfather his name rang a bell. I pulled out my iphone and did a quick search for him. Now here is a short list of the details that the speaker shared with us.

He learned to hunt as a boy.
He converted to the church as an adult.
He was a close confidant on Joseph Smith.
He crossed the plains with Brigham Young and was one of his most trusted friends.
He was a proud defender of the LDS Church.
He was shot several times and eventually died from complications of his gunshot wounds.

I’m going to spare the actual name of the ancestor mentioned because I don’t want to identify the speaker. However, Suffice it to say that the comparison I made to Ted Bundy is not unfair. He was Danite and essentially a hired assassin. This speaker’s ancestor actually confessed to killing more people than Bundy is suspected of killing. Yes, he was a member of the church but he was excommunicated and became an opponent of the church.

My point here is not to criticize Sunday’s speaker. I just seriously am intrigued by the amount of cognitive dissonance that it takes to spin this character into a hero. It’s one thing to cherry-pick data in order to convince somebody else. But I think that more often than not people unconsciously sort that data. They just actually do not even see the disconfirming evidence. Or if they do they minimize it or rationalize it to the point that even a negative becomes a positive.


  1. Kind of like politics on the local level.

    Cherry pick what you want to villify who you need.

  2. The sociology of this speaker's address to the church is what worries me. I understand your reluctance to identify the speaker, absolutely. I wouldn't do it, either. But within the church itself, shouldn't someone point out that this was a case of lying by omission? That the speaker had allowed his desire to honor those pioneers to lead him into a grave error? It would be sort of understandable (I am thinking here of how churches work) if the ancestor had made a confession, repented, and been brought back into the fold. Bad enough to ignore the evil the man did, but to honor his memory before the very Church that rejected him and that he condemned is just crazy.

    And by the way, kudos to you, Michael, for your willingness to face and to speak clearly about the unsavory aspects of LDS history. Whether speaking of family, church, nation, ethnic group, etc., we should all be so honest and fearless.

  3. Thanks. I initally created this blog as a venue to do just that. Any concept must be able to stand up to critical review. Including religious concepts. I'd seen far too much spin doctoring and looking the other way and felt the need to add my voice. Unfortunately, my willingness to question often puts me at odds with the church officials who see inquiry as a form of disobedience.

    For the most part I enjoy the laid back feel of not having professional clergy. The obvious downside is that sometimes speakers are allowed to wander well beyond accepted doctrine.